Vox Pop: Are consumers longing for long-form in marketing?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Longing for longform

It was recently brought to The Drum’s attention that we are longing for long-form. The age of bite sized media is seeing a resurgence of its comfortable long form component, despite our attention spans shrinking into oblivion with a quick fix of 140 characters. Facebook Instant Articles, the Guardian’s ‘The Long Read’, Snapchat Discover suggests that people are craving more insight into the things they are interested in rather than just flashes of information. The Drum Network asked its members what they thought about the resurgence of longform, and if they thought it was here to stay.

George Theohari, editorial director, Speak Media

As a journalist turned copywriter, I’ve always enjoyed longer articles and ad copy just as much as the quick, clever, crunchy stuff. Especially when the two work together across channels: as when a playful one-liner on social or search grabs our attention, then leads us into a deeper, satisfying read that changes the way we act or think. Or convinces us to click ‘buy’.

Among many of the marketers who call on us for content and copywriting support, however, there seems to be an assumption that long-form copy is irrelevant in a fast-paced multi-channel world – regardless of their business goals or the reader’s preferences.

Our response is that when it comes to creating copy or content for marketing purposes, ‘relevant’ is always better, as in relevant to the audience, and relevant to the channel. And long-form can have a crucial part to play in most, if not all, strategies.

Beyond the obvious constraints of many paid-for and social media platforms – the two-second window of viewing time in the case of a poster-ad on an escalator, the 140-character limit of Twitter – there are many opportunities, particularly in owned channels (brand websites, e-commerce stores, blogs, and magazines) where we have lots of space and time to tell our stories – creatively, compellingly, and with the potential for great ROI whether measured in terms of traffic, revenue, or brand loyalty. Just ask Asos. Or Red Bull. Or Rapha. Or Waitrose…

Of course it’s harder, and riskier, to attempt to sustain anyone’s interest for longer than it takes to click from Facebook to Buzzfeed – but there’s every sign that when it comes to building a sustainable, engaged audience for your brand, the ability to produce effective long-form copy is a vital tool in every marketer’s armoury.

Size isn’t everything, but as far as I’m concerned ‘long-form’ never went away (though I’ll still raise a glass to its reported resurgence, if that’s what we’re seeing).

Paige Guyan, marketing manager, Lab

Don’t call it a comeback – long-form journalism has never been out of fashion, just a bit lost in our ‘world of brevity and fast consumption’. The resurgence of long-form journalism is fitting in a time when it is more important than ever to engage consumers - particularly in the digital landscape, where the focus has shifted to the customer experience.

More than ever, consumers crave quality storytelling – and that simply can’t be done in 140 characters or less. Real engagement takes time. And although it is easy to assume that consumers in the Digital Age simply don’t have time to read more than a headline or Tweet – in reality, it is the fact that they have been deprived of real writing for so long that has left them hungry for it.

The return of long-form is just another indicator that genuine creativity will not only be the most important part of any brand’s long haul marketing strategy, but quality writing and clever storytelling will separate industry leaders from trend followers.

I was a published music journalist in Los Angeles prior to my role as a digital marketing professional here in the UK, so I find this resurgence is long overdue.

Janaina Scalise, senior planner, Gravity Thinking

The shift should be from format to relevance. There has been a clear appetite for substantive, well-crafted quality posts that engage readers as anything that is short and snappy might come across as ‘just another advertising line’. Each case is different though. You can also have a short form piece that is striking and makes me want to know more. The main objective is to help readers get to the answers they want faster and that means being where they are and having a clear, relevant message. It is still about meeting quality criteria. The reason why digital marketers and brands are gravitating more towards the long form content has all to do with visibility on search engine and the advantage of being able to provide a deeper view on a topic however, for readers, there will be moments where they will feel more like scanning through a piece of information rather than delving into it. And that’s why I’d aim for what is appropriate and relevant. The format is a consequence – it’s simply what works best.

Jon Williams, senior copywriter, Hugo & Cat

Did long form ever really go away? It’s always been a key part of brands’ marketing strategies, but it’s true that as content marketing came into vogue, appetite for fresh content grew and the clamour for people’s attention intensified. So the focus naturally shifted to short, fast, instantly gratifying content.

What we’re seeing now is that after years of bingeing on click-bait style appetisers, people are naturally hungry for a more substantial main course – a shift back to long form. And not just type on a page – podcasts like Serial and in-depth videos are hugely popular long-form mediums. The trouble is that the thirst for content hasn’t abated and in the rush to get content out, there’s a lot of long-form pieces that fall into old traps – low quality content that serve the author or organisation and not the reader. Naturally this is ineffective and has a high bounce rate.

This is a growing problem because statistically, brands are getting much better at bringing people to their content. But when that content doesn’t engage in the way that the reader was promised – they reach for the close tab button. “This isn’t what I thought I was going to see” is a common complaint from user feedback – see the #endclickbait movement for a start – and great opportunities for meaningful interaction, and engagement are being squandered. Yet when done right, long-form is one of the most effective types of content around and will continue to be. You only need to look at the success of a brand like ASOS’s podcasts to see that.

Mark Ellis, creative director, Manifesto

With the bulk of quick, cheap content now being treated as noise by increasingly more discerning audiences, what they engage with and for how long is very much determined by the quality of the piece on offer.

In my experience, quality will cut through the noise and resonate, whatever the length. Audiences are more than happy to spend plenty of time with longform content if it’s adding value to their lives, and apps such as Pocket have made it easy to save long articles to read at leisure later across devices.

Brands that provide useful, timely – and most importantly, quality – content are building genuine audience trust and advocacy.

In the digital world, longform has become something of an artform. Breaking up long pieces of editorial with rich content, interactive elements, images and infographics add pace, interest and help the user in their journey through the feature. In fact, reading a solid long-form piece online can be a real pleasure.

There are certainly refreshing examples of longform in today’s advertising. The London Underground offers a unique environment for a captive, offline audience to spend a bit of time with an ad. I, like many Londoners, have become intimate with the history of Jack Daniels through its long-form ads on the underground over the years.

It would certainly be a challenge to make these longform style of ads work online. But with longform so crucial to driving search traffic both in video and written content, it's a format that's definitely here to stay.

Charlotte Evans, head of editorial, Caliber

A lot of brands are seeing an opportunity to add depth to their online presence by incorporating relevant detailed information that targets users at different stages in the buying cycle. From informative buyer guides to long form blog content that addresses different user needs, this shift in focus places the reader front and centre once again in a move towards ecommerce sites becoming editorial publishers in their own right. It also prioritises micro conversions, like email signup and telephone lead generation, which lead to macro conversions.

Of course, this tactic is not just for readers. Search engines like Google are becoming more and more sophisticated in the way that they “read” pages. Primary keywords are strengthened when they are placed close to thematically relevant phrases, and the more naturally associated topics writers can cover in one article the better. Brands also have the opportunity to enhance content with beautiful imagery and functionality to give a seamless, high quality user experience. Plus there is a proven correlation between long form content and link generation.

Overall longer doesn’t necessarily mean better. Content should not be produced for content’s sake and long form should be carefully implemented within a strategic approach.